2. Critical Thinking in the Curriculum. I asked in Coaching Letter #159 about where the traits listed in the Portrait of a Graduate (which all the districts I work with either have or are developing) actually show up in the curriculum. Specifically, I wrote about critical thinking: “So, for every district that says that students are going to be critical thinkers, where exactly is that in the curriculum? Seriously, where?” And I was pleased to be contacted by districts who wanted to have that conversation—awesome—so I did some further research. As is so often the case in education, there appear to be more definitions of critical thinking than there are fish in the sea. So here is my brass tacks version, which is the same definition I used in the last CL, because anything else would be kinda dumb, right?: Critical thinking is the work that it takes to answer the question: “How do you know that’s true?” I like this definition because it so obviously applies to much of my work, and it doesn’t get hung up on all the individual thinking processes that some people like to include in their definitions (observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, and so on).
I don’t know if this is true everywhere in the US, plus many readers of this Coaching Letter are overseas, but here in the northeast, all high schools accredited by NEASC must have a Vision of the Graduate; and while those are in theory specific to the local community, in practice they all look very similar: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, global citizenship, self-management, technology. I’ve now worked with many districts on their Portrait of a Graduate (shout-out to CAPSS, who were very proactive about this and great partners in doing this work, and my colleague Patrice), and I know that defining these terms is a big enough challenge, and operationalizing them can be even tougher. Critical thinking, which is in almost all PoGs, is a great example.
Just saying that our kids are going to be critical thinkers and hoping that teachers are somehow going to make that happen without curricular and instructional changes is loopy. At the same time, an important point is that many, maybe most, of the skills in critical thinking are subject-specific. In other words, as this KQED online article describes:
“Wanting students to be able to ‘analyse, synthesise and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal,” writes Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”
Willingham’s reading of the research literature concludes that scientists are united in their belief that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking. And he argues that the best approach is to explicitly teach very specific small skills of analysis for each subject. For example, in history, students need to interpret documents in light of their sources, seek corroboration and put them in their historical context. That kind of analysis isn’t relevant in science, where the source of a document isn’t as important as following the scientific method.”
But also, I think there are some significant facets of critical thinking that are not necessarily going to show up in the curriculum as it currently exists in most American schools, and so we are going to have to invent it, or import from other spaces.
For example, I find it fascinating that we barely teach students anything about how their minds work. You really have to take AP Psychology before you learn anything about learning, memory, cognitive biases, mental models/schemata, or motivation. As a social studies teacher, I was always amazed at how many teachers were very invested in teaching about ancient Romans, Greeks, and Aztecs; I’m not saying that they don’t matter, exactly, it’s just that I can imagine how empowering it could be for students to have some insight into how our reasoning and emotions interact with each other, how we make decisions, how we can more effectively learn and monitor our own understanding, and so on. Plus, social studies is over-stuffed with facts and short on models and data. I think it’s ironic that we want students to be more metacognitive but we don’t really teach them about metacognition. You want students to take ownership of their own learning? Maybe we should teach them about learning.
And just for context, many or maybe most schools and districts are currently implementing plans to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL). Don’t you think it’s odd that we are figuring out how to teach kids how to be aware of, and to manage, their emotions, but not their thinking? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen anywhere, just that it doesn’t happen enough.
Another interesting place where we should do better is in the teaching of mathematics. The whole American high school approach to math is a bit of a conundrum to me—one of my more spectacular failures was in attempting to lead an effort to change a high school math program—course offerings, sequence, pre-requisites, grading, levels (oh so many levels!)—I barely survived the first meeting. Math in our high schools is very tightly constrained to algebra and geometry, and then trig, calculus and statistics if you get to upper level math. But statistics is not required for everyone, even though for most citizens even a passing understanding of statistics would have enormous utility: making investments and taking other kinds of risks; understanding percentages in weather forecasts and political polls (if the weather forecast says 20% chance of rain and it rains, it doesn’t mean the forecast was wrong…); Bayesian reasoning (watch this Julia Galef video—I love her); and not concluding that just because you didn’t get Covid during a cross-country trip the whole thing is a hoax.
There are now many efforts to reform the way that math is taught. One push getting a lot of attention at the moment is a joint effort between Steven Levitt (Chicago economics professor, co-author of Freakonomics, host of People I (Mostly) Admire podcast, and in the news a lot recently because of a paper he co-wrote 20 years ago on the relationship between crime and abortion) and Jo Boaler (Stanford professor and major player in efforts to reform math curriculum and instruction). They wrote this opinion in the LA Times; the core of their argument is:
What we propose is as obvious as it is radical: to put data and its analysis at the center of high school mathematics. Every high school student should graduate with an understanding of data, spreadsheets, and the difference between correlation and causality. Moreover, teaching students to make data-based arguments will endow them with many of the same critical-thinking skills they are learning today through algebraic proofs, but also give them more practical skills for navigating our newly data-rich world.
In addition, I have a couple of resources to add to the list in the last Coaching Letter.
This article in Vox on intellectual humility suggests that there is value in admitting that you made mistakes in the past, and that there are challenges to admitting that you may be making a mistake in the moment. As the author says:
In my reporting on this, I’ve learned there are three main challenges on the path to humility:
- In order for us to acquire more intellectual humility, we all, even the smartest among us, need to better appreciate our cognitive blind spots. Our minds are more imperfect and imprecise than we’d often like to admit. Our ignorance can be invisible.
- Even when we overcome that immense challenge and figure out our errors, we need to remember we won’t necessarily be punished for saying, “I was wrong.” And we need to be braver about saying it. We need a culture that celebrates those words.
- We’ll never achieve perfect intellectual humility. So we need to choose our convictions thoughtfully.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has written two books on data that are really relevant to the idea of critical thinking: Everybody Lies and Don’t Trust Your Gut. I can’t get into them here, but I highly recommend you learn about his work in single episodes of two podcasts: Freakonomics and People I (Mostly) Admire. (These aren’t perfectly relevant, but I can’t resist mentioning two other guests of People I (Mostly) Admire: Dan Gilbert, the happiness researcher, who actually has a lot to say about how we think, and economist Joshua Angrist – you’re just going to have to trust me on that one.) Don’t Trust Your Gut is a great companion to Moneyball, which is a great book and a great movie.
Julia Galef again, this TED Talk on Why You Think You Are Right Even When You Are Wrong, which I have actually watched several times, believe it or not. She also wrote a great book called The Scout Mindset, which I listened to on Audible and really liked because I had been so immersed in learning about cognitive biases that it was really interesting and useful to read a different perspective.
I know there’s a lot here, and I know some of my statements are a bit preachy, but the overall point I want to make is that if we are going to have aspirations for the kinds of skills, embodied in the Portrait of the Graduate, that we want our students to have, then we have to face how complicated it’s going to be to ensure that they get them.
Finally, my tutor from my teacher training course, a lifetime ago, just signed up for The Coaching Letter. That’s super cool and a big deal for me. Hi Terry.
As always, let me know if I can do anything for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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